The Difficulty of Intention & 'Death of the Author' by Bronwen Griffiths
An event occurred recently which caused me to reflect upon intention. A story of mine that’s been up on the Black Country Arts Foundry website for two years suddenly attracted attention – and not of the sort I initially welcomed. (The link to the story follows below this article).
My story is loosely based on real life events and is told partly in the voice of a child. In the story I use the word ‘gypsy’. When I wrote the piece I was well aware that the word is now considered to be offensive. Happily it is not now in common parlance and we use the word ‘traveller’ instead. But when my brother and I were children, the word was widely used, including by my own mother, although I do not recall any particular prejudice on her part. However, my brother and I did hear from those around us, of the ‘bad’ things ‘gypsies’ did.
My brother and I attended a local village school in the 1960’s. A small traveller community then lived in the village. I cannot remember exactly when it disappeared, or indeed quite why it disappeared. As for my brother and I, we were, I admit, a little wary of the traveller community, mainly, I believe, because we knew so little about them – but mostly we were just curious, as children often are.
In the latter part of the story I write about how things have changed in the village I grew up in; how much of it has been ‘smartened’ up and how the travellers suddenly vanished. I lament the passing of this way of life. However, this is not entirely clear in the piece. The story could be interpreted in a number of ways, and one of those ways might be to think that I disliked the traveller community and am happy they are gone. This was far from my intention but in re-reading the story after the complaint had been placed, made me acutely aware that intention is not always sufficient.
One of the problems with writing is that we, as authors, are very close to our material. We know what we are thinking in our own heads but this is not always obvious to others. We experience this in our day to day communication too, both face-to-face and on social media. Not so long ago I put something up on Twitter that a woman objected too. I felt myself bristle inside but I took a deep breath and explained to her that what she thought I meant was not what I intended. But again my communication had been unclear. It took that Twitter user to show me that my tweet was very much open to interpretation. Of course we all know that people will deliberately twist and misunderstand what we say and write but in these two instances this was not the case.
Sometimes we opt to hide behind this lack of clarity. We can claim that we not intend offence when perhaps we did. In terms of my story, I cannot be 100 per cent certain what I thought or felt about travellers when I was a small child. It is too long ago now. I honestly believe I am being truthful when I say I had no prejudices against them. But is that entirely true? I really cannot be certain.
In our modern age, the ‘death of the author’ has been much discussed. In a famous essay, Death of the Author (1967) by Roland Barthes he argues that it is the reader who makes meaning on the page, not the author. Certainly, though I do not subscribe to this idea in its entirety, I know and understand that the reader is an essential part of a piece of literature. The reader will bring their own thoughts, meanings and interpretations to the page. Therefore we, as authors, need to interrogate our work if we intend for what we write to be understood in a particular way. Even if we do so, we will still be open to interpretation. Indeed all creative work is open to interpretation, and is often seen differently over time.
Bronwen is the author of two novels and two collections of flash fiction. Her flash pieces have been widely published. She is working on a novella and a novella-in-flash. You can read some of her work online on her website & even purchase some of her books.